Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Spaghetti Western Week, Day 3

Another day, another fistful of dollars. Today's double feature: JOHNNY YUMA and TWICE A JUDAS, both of which feature well-known American cult movie stars.

Maybe "star" is too generous a word for Mark Damon, but he's recognizable to this particular movie geek as the leading man in Roger Corman's THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1961) and as an over-the-top villain in the wildly eccentric spaghetti western REQUIESCANT (a.k.a. KILL AND PRAY, 1967). According to the Spaghetti Western Database, Damon was also considered for the title role in Sergio Corbucci's DJANGO. Corbucci and Damon were working together on the film JOHNNY ORO (1966) when Corbucci bailed to make DJANGO. Damon, I guess, stuck to his guns and finished the first movie, then went on to play another "Johnny."

The strange thing about JOHNNY YUMA (1967) is that the title character really isn't vital to the success of the film. He's just your standard Ringo-esque hero: initially charming, eventually detestable, quick with a gun, slow to remember the names of the women he's slept with. What's interesting about him is the fact that his mortal enemy is his step-mother Samantha, a woman so wantonly sleazy that she seduces her own brother and gets him to kill her husband. The character, played by Rosalba Neri, reminds me a bit of Barbara Stanwyck in THE VIOLENT MEN (1955).

Yuma manages to evade her venus fly trap (though just barely), so she hires a bounty killer to bump him off. Unfortunately the bounty killer (played by Lawrence Dobkin) has fallen a little too hard for her Lady Macbeth routine, and he doesn't appreciate it when she turns him out like a cheap trick. In the end, Damon and Dobkin (the real hero of the film) shoot it out with Neri's army of hired guns, leading up to a priceless final kill.

The result is a worthwhile, if not exceptional, spaghetti western. It has well-staged (though sometimes silly) action sequences, enough gritty melodrama for a hard-boiled gangster movie, decent acting and a tantalizing bath scene involving a horny parrot. What more can you ask for? (The Mill Creek DVD even boasts a pretty good picture transfer.)

TWICE A JUDAS (1968) features a much weaker hero (Antonio Sabato) but an equally compelling villain in Klaus Kinski, who has been in dozens of cult classics, including Jess Franco's COUNT DRACULA (1970) and Werner Herzog's NOSFERATU (1979). In the spaghetti western world, he had a small but memorable role as a renegade priest in the Zapata western A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL (1966) and he played the ultimate bounty killer in Sergio Corbucci's best film THE GREAT SILENCE (1968). His performance here is not as interesting as in any of those films, but the actor's distinctive glowering gives this already slightly gothic western an even more menacing vibe.

Like JOHNNY YUMA, TWICE A JUDAS is the stuff of classical melodrama: It begins with Sabato waking up in the desert among bloody bodies and buzzards. We soon learn that he took a bullet to the head during some kind of fracas and he can't remember what happened. He then wanders into a nearby town, where someone is waiting for him... to help him kill his brother. Sabato, confused about what kind of man would kill his brother, decides to play nice with Kinski, but finds him suspiciously unforthcoming about the details of their family history. The Cain and Abel-with-amnesia schtick is a great premise, but it's developed in very boring fashion: Kinski mostly broods, Sabato mostly overacts, and the details of the mystery are withheld until one ridiculously long, ridiculously random flashback in the third act. I don't think I'm giving anything away by revealing that Kinski murdered his family... I mean, just look at the guy. Does this look like a face you can trust?
For some reason, the filmmakers decided that it's not enough for Kinski's character to simply be a mean son of a bitch, so they gave him a long-winded, politically-motivated diatribe in the midst of his final showdown with Sabato. It goes something like this: "Our mother was the daughter of a chief. This land belonged to the Indians before the Yankees got here. So it was mine by right. We had the same father, but I was born before you or Victor... blah blah blah."

I hate it when movie villains do this. I mean, the guy barely says a word for the whole movie, and then he's going to give a five-minute monologue so that that the hero can sneak around behind him and take aim with a friggin' blunderbuss? Anyone who's dumb enough to deliver a soliloquy in the middle of an action sequence simply deserves to get shot with a blunderbuss. If that doesn't make one yearn for THE GREAT SILENCE, I don't know what will.

Tomorrow's guest star: the immortal LEE VAN CLEEF!

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